ACADEMIC YEAR 2023-2024, semester one
Campus Sint-Lucas Ghent
Key words: architecture & interior design, complex buildings, cultural heritage (conservation & restoration), museology & education (Museum of the Moving Image), sustainability (architectural resilience & regeneration)
Context & problem
Since the invention of cinema in the 19th century, motion pictures have transported people across the world into different times and places. As soon as the invention found its footing, people began to come together to see films.
Initially, small rooms that housed inventions like the vitascope became popular; and nickelodeons, where folks could see movies for a nickel, were all the rage. With the advent of Hollywood and the studio system, lavish movie palaces were constructed. In the mid-1930s one could get snacks and other concessions with a movie. By the 1950s drive-ins were very popular. The 1960s saw the rise of multiplexes, widescreen, surround sound, CinemaScope, Smell-O-Vision and 3D. Almost at the same time television became commonplace in homes, businesses and institutions. Since the 1980s the availability of various types of archival storage media (such as Betamax and VHS tapes, LaserDiscs, high-capacity hard disk drives, CDs, DVDs, flash drives, Blu-ray Discs, and cloud digital video recorders) has enabled viewers to watch pre-recorded material, such as movies, at home on their own time schedule.
Eventually, at-home entertainment, spurred by an ever-expanding array of internet streaming services and increasingly sophisticated TV set-ups, removed the need to leave the house. People would, any day, stay back home, stock up on some drinks and snacks, cuddle inside a cosy blanket, and watch movies from the comfort of their home. Meanwhile, cinema ticket prices were rising which only further reduced demand.
The Covid-pandemic only exacerbated the problem. When cinemas closed due to lockdown orders, often being some of the last venues allowed to reopen during the temporary lifting of restrictions, movie production houses turned towards streaming services to debut their films.
In December 2020, Warner Bros announced a deal with HBP Max to simultaneously release all blockbuster movies in 2021 on the streaming platform and in cinemas. The deal ended in 2022 as the company set to prioritise theatrical release once again, albeit with an altered timeline. Cinemas saw their exclusive window to show movies cut in half, from the 90 days of the pre-pandemic era to the current 45 days.
Even as the movie industry inches closer to a return to normality, streaming services have established themselves as viable alternatives to cinema. The future of cinema remains uncertain, filled with both challenges and opportunities.
Can we make movie theatre visits successful again?
Cinema, however, is not yet on the verge of extinction. But to survive, it shall need to adapt. The key is to make a trip to the cinema a unique, customized event for consumers and cinephiles. Movie theatres will have to reinvent themselves by thinking how they can personalise experiences. That involves an entirely new approach far beyond offering better food and more comfortable seats.
People will always want to see high-budget films (so-called ‘blockbusters’) with exceptional special effects and globally beloved stars on a massive screen. Increasingly, cinemas shall have to specialise in showing those types of movies, while studios will prefer a streaming-only release for films that people have no incentive to leave their house for.
People will equally want to experience the ‘best classic films ever made’ on the large silver screen – preferably in a unique movie theatre atmosphere.
The elevated experience will be about the submergence into an exclusive architectural world supported by superior techniques. The elegant architecture and interior design of historic movie theatres will be re-appreciated and adapted to future needs.
Cinemas will be the place for those who want the ‘communal genuine experience’, maybe preceded by an introduction talk or followed by a discussion group.
Movie theatre business can even take up an educating role by collaborating with Museums of the Moving Image (MoMI). Their venue can host MoMI-organised educational experiences as well as dynamic talks, workshops and screenings for children, teens, families, adults and seniors.
Change is already underway. The main challenge for architects is to make sure that movie theatre venues can provide in new needs and exclusive experiences.
The subject of our study is the legendary Cinema Rex (Queen Maria Hendrika Square 35) in Ghent.
The venue, which opened doors in 1933, was designed by the Ghent architect Geo Hendrick (°1879 – +1957) – by then an experienced movie theatre designer. For Cinema Rex he developed a high-quality architectural variant on the ‘Atmospheric Movie Theatre’ – a concept developed in the 1920s by the Chicago architect John Eberson.
Atmospheric movie theatres offer the illusion of a unique intimate open-air experience.
In such an outdoor atmosphere, the moviegoer enjoys the beauty of idyllic landscapes and skies. The effect of an open-air auditorium is secured through ceiling and side wall treatment enhanced with flood light.
Eberson believed that the greatest opportunity for service to the industry and the audience that is open to the architect lies in his atmospheric theatre concept by offering a unique experience. It is a service that can be best rendered by courageously and intelligently deviating from the stereotyped style of the run-of-the-mill ‘Theatres de Luxe’.
Here the architect has to call upon his poetic skills to create something ‘different’ – something artistic that appeals to the senses.
With his design of Cinema Rex, Geo Hendrick made the moviegoer forget the day-to-day worries. Seated on a slope Hendrick made them contemplate a nighty summer sky with sparkling stars and peacefully passing clouds in a Mediterranean courtyard atmosphere designed as an homage to Frank Lloyd Wright.
During the 1950s Henderick’s illusionary interior unfortunately disappeared when Frans Merlé ‘modernised’ the interior and turned it into something utterly meaningless without any qualities.
Eventually, the limelight died down in 1985 when DVD home movies appeared. Five years later the venue was transformed into a casino.
In 1996 Cinema Rex (or what remains of it) was listed as a monument. Being unused for almost 30 years, the venue is gradually falling into decay. About 12 years ago a local action group campaigned against this situation. Unfortunately, nothing changed.
Our objective is: 1) to formulate contemporary ‘post-pandemic’ solutions to revitalise this unique venue; and 2) to produce a number of contemporary architectural re-design projects in line with the initial ‘Atmospheric Movie Theatre’ concept.
Design research is central to our agenda. The focus lies on experimental, critical and curiosity-driven research that deals with a wide variety of challenges ranging from the conceptualisation of architecture and its virtual modelling and physical fabrication, to the human experience of its material manifestation.
The research section entails:
1 – the design-oriented exploration of a ‘multi-perspective understanding of the past’. We shall dive into the ‘multiple pasts’ with a fresh contemporary attitude (in contrast to the current dominant westernised elitist attitude) to harvest material for the future.
2 – the design-oriented assimilation of ‘visions’ of respected scholars, public-opinion leaders, decisionmakers, and other stakeholders to be able to work on multi-layered projects designed to address contentious historical issues in a meaningful and impactful manner.
3 – the design-oriented use of ‘existing guidelines’ to deal with cultural heritage and legacy.
4 – the design-oriented exploration of ‘multiple responses’ to problems inherent to the present-day culture of the moving image.
The output will be a number of design projects (individual or one per group of 3 to 5 students) and thematised publications.
Studio Master: Wim Oers, Dipl. Architect (HAISLG), MSc Arch in AAS (The Bartlett, UCLondon), MSc Arch Cons (RLICC, KU Leuven)
Students: This studio welcomes 1st year Master Degree students in Architecture (both national and International) and Master Degree students in Interior Architecture (both national and international).
Literature (chronological – descending):
Deseyn, Guido, ”Gentse filmzalen”, in Stadarcheologie, 7, n° 1, Gent, 1983, p. 28-46.
Desseyn, Guido, Geo Henderick 1879-1957 (museum catalogue), Stad Gent, 1984
Van de Vijver, Lies, Gent Kinemastad: een multimethodisch onderzoek naar de ontwikkeling van filmexploitatie, filmprogrammering en filmbeleving in de Stad Gent en randgemeenten (1896-2010) als case binnen New Cinema History onderzoek, PhD thesis, University Ghent, 2011.
Gjestland, Rolv, How to design a Cinema auditorium – Practical guidelines for architects, cinema owners and others involved in planning and building cinemas, Unic (International Union of Cinemas), 2020.
Archief Henderick, Museum voor Sierkunst, Jan Breydelstraat 7, 9000 Gent.
Archief Gent, De Zwarte Doos, Dulle-Grietlaan 12, 9050 Gent.